When I arrive at this site, The Wilderness Downtown, I have no idea what to expect. I know it’s a “chrome experiment” and that it uses Google Maps but that’s pretty much it. The site asks for only one thing – the place where you live (or more precisely, the place where you lived). Already I’m settling in for an experience. I can already feel the powerful pull of nostalgia deep in my gut.
On a whim I decide to enter the childhood address of my grandmother. I am interested to see what this experiment may yield – especially considering what Google Streetview was able to yield in my genealogical enquiries. I am hoping for a different kind of story, perhaps a visual panorama – a mashing of time lapsed images that recreate the emotional landscapes that we once inhabited. Expectantly, I click the Play Movie button and turn up the sound.
The soundtrack pumps and browser windows spawn across my screen. There’s a man running down the street. He’s hooded and he’s pounding the tarmac as though the music is driving him forward. It could be the same street. It could be any street in any city.
In another window I see the street where my grandmother lived. I’m flying with a flock of birds, cruising what is now the high density fringe of the inner city of Sydney. I don’t recognise it from up here – it’s all warehouses and flat roof buildings. Then, on the ground, at street level, I recognise the brickwork, the panorama. Suddenly the aerial view matches up and I recognise the still existing row of slum terraces clinging to their city purchase.
The man’s still running. He’s not looking back. But in a way, that’s what I am doing. I am struck by the changes on the landscapes in which we have lived for generations. I am reminded of the personal stories and current dramas of close friends and family – of unexpected and almost fatal accidents and their aftermath; of diagnoses of cancer and the challenge of its treatment; of chronic pain and helplessness; and of the growing awareness of ageing and what it means to see your own history fade before your eyes.
There is wilderness downtown – and this amazing web experience leads beyond my description. Experience it for yourself – you’ll be surprised – or click here to see what I saw. But there is also the wilderness where you live – where you must live – where you can only live. There is a wilderness in our own hearts.
Be sure to explore it while you can.